On Mothering Sunday I was delighted to read, via facebook, that Lucy Allen’s daughter had been born to her partner Emma (the gestational parent). What a beautiful gift to two new mothers! This morning, I read Lucy’s account of the birth and the days following it and was incensed by the way medical professionals and support staff treated her and Emma. Microaggressions, apathy, and ignorance resulted in increased trauma for both of them and as far as I can see make a credible case for institutional homophobia.
Too many of my women friends have had distressing experiences during labour of being sidelined in their own experiences. Most of those women had male partners to help advocate for them, but they were often still left distressed and even traumatised by their experiences – though at least their husbands/boyfriends seem to have had a better chance of being heard than Lucy did. It caused me to reflect a little on my experience of giving birth to my daughter and why it was so good – not to boast in my good fortune, but rather to argue that everyone in labour deserves an experience characterised by personalised care and respect for their person, and that their birthing partners are also treated with consideration and respect.
I was fortunate to give birth at Birmingham City Hospital’s Serenity midwife-led unit. Serenity was the brainchild of award-winning midwife Kathryn Gutteridge, Serenity is a beautiful self-contained unit on the grounds of City Hospital (meaning in case of emergency a crash team is seconds away) that has welcoming rooms with birthing pools, mood lighting, a range of birthing aids like birth balls, en-suite facilities, and a fold-down double bed so the whole family can rest together. To many of us familiar with NHS facilities, this all sounds very fancy and middle-class, and indeed I think many people associate midwife-led units, with their emphasis on low intervention birth, with granola-crunchy Boden-wearing mamas. In fact, Serenity is in one of the poorest wards in Birmingham, with high poverty and unemployment rates and higher than average numbers of people with English not as a mother tongue (and perhaps without much fluency in English at all). Keeping women who fall into these categories in touch with health services can be a real challenge, and understandably many women (not just vulnerable ones!) are frightened by large institutions like the typical city hospital and its doctors. At Serenity there is no changeover of staff at shift changes – you have the same midwife throughout your whole labour – and birth partners are made very welcome. There are kitchen facilities so your partner can prepare healthy snacks during and after labour – though we were also of course given food and drink provided by the hospital – and the pleasant rooms also mean children visiting their new siblings aren’t intimidated by a hospital atmosphere.
My labour was surprisingly fast for a first birth, and from very early on I was in a lot of pain. I still managed to have a low intervention birth using gas and air and a birthing pool, which is partly good fortune in my body being able to get on with things okay, and partly down to the support of my husband and also that the midwives at Serenity took serious account of my birth plan and worked with us to achieve it. During active labour, as I was in intense pain, I lost the capacity to speak quite early on. Kieran was able to discuss our plan with the midwives, but I also felt very clearly that the midwives understood what it was that I wanted and that they’d paid a good deal of attention to our written plan and the comments we were able to share with them before it all got a bit full-on for me! After the birth, all the follow up checks were done with sensitivity, allowing us plenty of time to bond as a a family. The midwives were also extraordinarily kind and helpful when I had major difficulties getting Grace to latch and made what was a stressful situation much more manageable. They showed us a great deal of consideration and respect.
Unlike in some parts of the world, I was able to have this first-class experience entirely for free. But many women I know have had the experience of doctors – and sometimes, though less frequently, midwives – dismiss their fears and concerns, pay lip service to the concept of meaningful consent, and force women into making birth decisions they would not have done if they were fully informed and not frightened and exhausted. My labour experience should be a rule, not an exception. I cannot overstate the extent to which this is a feminist issue; a labouring body can be a site of both empowerment and extreme vulnerability, and it is critical that we receive respect, care and the right to make our own decisions at this time and in the aftermath.